Pneumatic or Cordless? Sorting through the Clutter
If you’ve ever joined or monitored a “tool talk” blog, or initiated debate with other mechanics about air and cordless tools, you’re likely aware of the varied opinions and conflicting information out there — both pro and con — about each tool:
“The air drills just make way too cool of a sound, and spools up almost instantly. Ya just gotta have one!” - Gandalf
“You will probably hear from some who swear that an air drill is well worth it, and other who’ll tell you they didn’t drill a single hole with anything other than their trusty cordless. My experience has been that air drills tend to be faster, no batteries to run out, lighter and smaller, long lasting, and they make a much cooler sound.”- Java
“For riveting, you definitely need pneumatic tools, but if I had to do it again, I would not opt for the expensive air drill. An electric cord is easier to manage.” – w1curtis, Eastern, PA
“I have a set of cordless 1/2-inch impacts, one is lightweight and a bigger one that are great! I use them to tear down and build rear ends — makes getting a pinion nut off at the junkyard a breeze. This is some of the best money I’ve spent on tools.”- zman1969
And there you have it. Differing opinions, personal preferences, specific applications, and everything’s still fuzzy, right? Well, our hope is that we can clarify some of the confusion in this installment of Maximum Impact and try to resolve much of the debate with a few facts and features, application recommendations and offer some overall conclusions.
Battery Perception Hangover
The first concern that is likely to surface in a discussion comparing air and cordless models is the long-held perception that battery memory and charging ability and capacity becomes compromised if the battery isn’t allowed to run all the way down. This stems from the old days of nickel metal hydride and nickel cadmium battery packs.
“Battery charge capacity and memory is no longer an issue and hasn’t been for upwards of 15 years now,” says Steve Jenson, global portfolio manager of the cordless tools division at Ingersoll Rand. “There’s a misperception that batteries can’t deliver the power and that they will die quickly, but that just isn’t the case anymore. The technology is improving remarkably.”
According to Jenson, the cordless tool market has been 100 percent converted, meaning all new battery development for the last four to five years has been with new chemistry, lithium ion. Although the technology is rapidly evolving, lithium ion batteries address the durability, power and life concerns as well as the memory effect, still widely held by end users. The issues that people remember most are associated with a battery chemistry that’s no longer being invested in.
Size Dictates Performance, Regardless of How it’s Powered
Another common perception is that pneumatic tools always outperform cordless tools. Adam Brown, global portfolio manager of the impacts & ratchets division of Ingersoll Rand, notes that while air tools have typically been more powerful in the past, cordless tools hold their own in certain classes.
“The breadth and range of a pneumatic impact – cordless doesn’t touch that still to this day,” Brown says. “But within a certain segment, we are finding that cordless performance does rival, or even in some cases, cordless surpasses pneumatic tool performance, depending on how they’re evaluated.”
For example, to get the same power of a half inch air impact with a cordless impact, the cordless tool will weigh upwards of six pounds versus four pounds for an air tool, with the cordless tool likely measuring up to two inches longer. The tool size will also be dependent on the type of battery. But after a certain size, air tools are the only option available at this time.
“Cordless can be a viable option, up to a certain maximum size, so far as technology stands,” Jenson says. “Anything greater than a half inch, air or hydraulic is the only choice because there’s just not a cordless option available.”
The cost of ownership varies between air and cordless tools. Users who opt for pneumatic will likely already have access to an air supply, while with a cordless tool, the cost of purchasing a power supply in addition to the tool is a consideration. Jenson cautions potential buyers to consider total cost of ownership, including startup costs and portability, and then prioritize. “If the user already has an air source provided and never has to leave the shop to go on the road or the parking lot, maybe they have no justification to spend the money on a cordless tool, unless they just don’t like dragging around an air hose,” he says. “However, if they do need portability and are facing buying their own compressor, cordless may look like a better option.”
Users need to consider the different applications and types of work scenarios before making a significant investment in one method over the other. Professional technicians in the U.S., for example, will likely do the majority of their work within a shop when an air compressor is available.
That said, there may be a need to use the tool remotely, in locations where air and electricity are not available — places like a parking lot or on a service call along the side of a highway or a deserted road. Even if an air compressor is equipped on a service vehicle, there’s the time involved with compressing a tank full of air, reeling hose in and out … all tasks that affect productivity and add time and effort between service calls. With a cordless tool, they can monetize that. Even if the majority of work performed by the user takes place within a shop, there’s the “access to a service point” consideration. If tight, confined or restricted space is an issue, cordless may be the better option.
“Someone doing trim work or under-dash/under-seat repairs could easily use an air screwdriver or a small air impact or a ratchet. But many times they won’t trust the hose to be clean enough, or they won’t want to drag a dirty hose into a nice, clean passenger compartment. Since pneumatic tools are usually larger in size, those two or three extra inches could present access problems compared to a smaller, equally effective cordless tool,” Jenson says.
In the final analysis, perhaps message board user Pro-Street69Camaro468 sums it up best …“They both have their place.”
Both Jenson and Brown concur.
“In our vision of the garage now, and into the near future, users are always going to have both,” Jenson says. “They will likely have more cordless tools down the road than they have today because technology will improve even more. Ingersoll Rand has long been an innovative leader in tool technology and I can assure you we will be able to continue to develop better power to weight, i.e., getting size per given power down closer to what an air tool will do. But if there’s air in the shop, you can bet there is also going to be pneumatic tools. Our goal is to make all tools as productive as possible, period. And that will likely take many forms. Ingersoll Rand is committed to mediating the performance to power to weight ratio, and bring cordless closer to air, while leveraging battery improvements with durability and power.”
You can find out more about both our cordless and air options at www.ingersollrandproducts.com